Toronto International Film Festival Day 4

Posted 13 September 2017

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The festival has settled into its swing now and the hysteria of the opening weekend has calmed somewhat and allowed for more considered viewings to take place today. In line with the Showroom's F-rating for films directed, written and starring women there is a plethora of candidates at this year's TIFF, and one of them is the first film that has really struck a chord with me so far.

First off though, British director Susanna White's Woman Walks Ahead, the story of Catherine Weldon, a woman ahead of her time in the 1870s who, after the death of her oppressive husband, sets forth from New York City to restart her career as an artist. Her intention is to record the lives of the Lakota Sioux on canvas and specifically paint a portrait of their great chief, Sitting Bull. Weldon is played by Jessica Chastain (who also stars in Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut  Molly's Game at the festival), possibly one of Hollywood's best contemporary actors - she will become the Meryl Streep of her generation. As one might expect, Waldron is subjected to a barrage of sexist and racist insults (and worse) once she arrives at the Standing Rock reservation, but they are stoically endured as she and Sitting Bull meet and become ever closer whilst he poses for his portrait..

The film is in constant danger of tipping into melodrama but the performance of Michael Greyeyes as the Hunkpapa chief keeps things balanced. In short then an inevitably worthy film that actually has striking resonance with current events -  Standing Rock reservation is today the site of another standoff between the US government and the Sioux nation, this time over a controversial oil pipeline development.

So, to my first festival favourite is Lucrecia Martel's Zama. Martel is best known here for The Headless Woman and this new film is sure to seal her reputation as one of the leading directors in world cinema. Zama is the story of Don Diego de Zama, a magistrate and government flunkie in a god-forsaken South American colony of Spain in the 17th century. Zama has been away from his home and family for years but is trapped in a nightmarish bureaucracy as he attempts to request a transfer from the filthy and squalid colony. His frustrating situation is Kafka-esque, made worse by the fact that even requesting a transfer will take at least a year before any answer might arrive back from Spain. Zama mentally, physically, and morally decays before our eyes and endures insult and derision from Spaniards, slaves and the indigenous natives. The final part of the film is an equally nightmarish expedition into the jungle to hunt down a notorious bandit. This section has a touch of Werner Herzog to it but Martel makes it her own vision entirely.

The film is going to be a tough sell; its narrative is elliptical and characters' motivations often obscure. Much of this is due to how alien the location and the customs are to a modern audience, Martel forces us to look and listen carefully in order to assimilate with the film's location and times and that attention and concentration pays off. This is an extraordinary piece of cinema.

Martin Carter

Principal Film Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, Martin regularly gives lectures and courses at The Showroom Cinema in Sheffield.Read more posts by Martin Carter

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